The Problem with Music

Difficulty of musical performance

“That’s enough. One by one”, I barked.

It was an atmosphere too familiar. My students brought up their instruments and started playing the first 5 notes printed on their music for me.

As my finger went down the row rapidly, I barked off words of appraisal: “Too slow…passable…messy…nope…”

One of them looked up at me with anger and disapproval. I caught her eyes, and I could see her saying in her mind, “I have practiced this many times and you just trashed my efforts with a single word.”

Alas, she is right. It hurts to receive appraisal of one’s hard work with a single ‘nope’ after months of trying. Have I seen her effort? Yes. Has she improved since the first day? For sure, yes. Is it sufficient to make good music? Not necessarily.

That is the problem of music.

Music practice is stressful

In the preparation for the upcoming Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) or any other competition for that matter, the stakes get high. Five judges will be present to listen to 127 bands. Upon listening to each band on the stage, they will have about 10 minutes to grade ten musical criteria on the scale of ‘1’ to ‘4’, with ‘4’ being the most excellent. Most of them will be hearing the bands for the first time in their lives, and months of the students’ hard work will be appraised within minutes.

However, such musical appraisal is not unique to SYF. Every musician who wishes to perform good music shares the same concern. It is no wonder that musicians are often stressed. A report shows that a number of surveys have indicated that performance anxiety is a serious problem for a substantial proportion of musicians.” [Elizabeth Valentine, “The fear of performance”] This perennial problem of stress does not disappear with professional musicians.

“If I can play like so-and-so, then I would not need to practice” is a common catchphrase I hear. But a mature, world-class musician is just as concerned about his performance, albeit in a different way. To quote world-class accompanist Gerald Moore, this is what he said about playing the simple introductory bars of Schubert’s “Wanderes Nachtlied”:

“Dynamically, this little “Vorspiel” is all pianissimo but within the bounds of that pianissimo there must be a slight increase of swelling of tone and a subsequent reduction of tone. It is a curve – rising then falling: the smoothest of curves from one chord joined to the next. So restricted in range is it, so narrow the margin between your softest chord and your least soft chord that if you go one fraction over the limit at the top of the curve, all is ruined. Each chord though related and joined to its neighbor is a different weight, differing by no more than a feather.

You listen self-critically as you practice it. You experiment. You play it giving each chord a uniform and gentle pressure so that there is no rise and fall of tone- all pianissimo. You then try to give it that infinitesimal crescendo and diminuendo that is really wanted to give shape and meaning to the phrase: but it is out of proportion- you have over done it – so you start again….” [Gerald Moore, “Am I too loud? Memoirs of an Accompanist”. Quoted from Peter Hill, “From score to sound”]

Alas, I can’t possibly say to my student ‘all is ruined’ as that would be demoralizing. But the truth remains that music performance is a stressful business. We must acknowledge that practice in music is not always fun, but rather, difficult, stressful and often exasperating. The stress of practice that is borne to achieve good music will inevitably show in students and conductors. In Peter Hill’s words, “The balance between extreme care and patience on the one hand and the fierce desire to make music on the other is one of the hardest of the many such balances the performer has to strike. In one sense we need to be impatient; but if impatience spills over into the work itself, the results are as damaging as we cut corners and lower standards.” [Peter Hill, “From score to sound”]

Music learning is foreign

Music is a different language. The alphabets of music is time itself. Sadly, there is no language in the world that is similar to the language of music – this makes it really hard to learn. I will try to illustrate with a few examples.

  • One of the helpful tools we use in teaching rhythms is subdividing the beat. A semiquaver pattern can be broken down to “1-e-n-a”. By isolating the syllables, we can theoretically teach most difficult rhythmic patterns that are in their syllabus. However the feeling of subdivision is time-based. They need to be musically intuitive to feel the length of space from one beat to the other. This can only be guided as far as their intuition goes, until they understand and grow in their intuition.
  • The process of music performance is very different from that of creation in the visual arts. In both of these, the end-result comes about from a process of accumulation, but with very different natures. The quality of the final product in visual art is typically not dependent on a single defining moment – an artist can draw a few strokes today, and add to or change them tomorrow. In some sense, the end product is more easily fixed in its final, permanent state. However, in music performance, the ‘final product’ is a single defining moment during performance and its quality is not guaranteed. A musician must play the right notes in the right order in every practice in order to achieve the same musical effect during performance. Unless the students’ senses are so well attuned that their sense of time, tone, pitch, fingerwork, etc are clearly in their head, there is no guarantee that what they learnt today will sound the same tomorrow.

To improve their understanding of musical language, they have to listen to themselves and to others often to assimilate good sound images mentally; they have to play their instruments very often to know how to reproduce the same desired sound; they have to train their audio memory, a commonly less-developed skill, till they are able to reproduce the appropriate sound every time. The time taken for this process varies greatly amongst individuals.

Music performance is elusive, but awesome

The obvious question remains: Why then should we put ourselves through such angst in order to perform in bands?

I recalled the band exchange of about 400 students that took place a few years ago. A conductor asked “Did any of you join band in order to get a distinction in SYF?” To my surprise, no hands went up. Not a single one.

Students join band because music is fun. Music is beautiful. Music makes you want to play it again tomorrow. Music makes the hard work worthwhile, even though it is often elusive. To continue the quote with Gerald Moore, he says:

“In your search of light and shade, you are as happy and absorbed as a painter mixing the colours on his palette, and the satisfaction to the player when he does succeed in producing that undulation, that clean line, when he feels at least that the whole design is shapely and fine, is immense. But this satisfaction or self-satisfaction is experienced but rarely. Just as surely as you are aware you have brought it off, so surely does your ever sharpening sensibility tell you how elusive is the prize and how many times you fail to attain it.” [Gerald Moore, “Am I too loud? Memoirs of an Accompanist”]

Let us strive for excellence – not for the mere appraisal of others, but for that elusive, immensely satisfying music that makes us happy.

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